Friday, August 22, 2008

On Reading: The Photography of Andre Kertesz

On Reading
By Andre Kertesz
W.W. Norton, $29.95 cloth
ISBN 978-0-393-0665602

Published 34 years ago and now reissued in a new edition of sparkling clarity and richness, Andre Kertesz’s photographs of people doing the simple private act of reading is by turns clever, playful, deep, profound, and most of all, artful.

Here in America we have always been a little suspicious of the reader. In a country founded by a group of religious zealots who believed idle hands could be corrupted by the devil, we would much rather see someone mowing a lawn than lounging in a hammock reading Harry Potter. I clearly remember my mother coming into my bedroom and seeing me immersed in a book, sighing in exasperation: “Why don’t you get off your butt and do something!”

“I am. I’m reading.”

I knew what she meant. She wanted to see real work, with tangible results that could be measured and appreciated. When one is reading, the action is all mental. Only the fluttering pages whipping by reveal the progress of the reader. And when the book is closed at the end of the last page, where is the measured result? How does the act of reading impact the reader, change his life, result in an outcome?

Kertesz revels in the privacy of the act. His pictures give us scenes of the life of the mind; it is left to us to figure out the impact, the tangible result. All we can glean from these incredible snaps is that the contract between book and reader is private, intense, and transportive. These readers are elsewhere, that is what becomes most obvious. But on repeated viewings, and we are drawn into repeated viewings, we are left to wonder, how is it that crude symbols on a page, needing to be deciphered and comprehended both on a literal and figurative level, can convey a complete and total other world. To the reader immersed in the book, the characters in that land are real people, involved in real situations that make the heart race and blood pressure rise.

Andre Kertesz was born in Hungary in 1894 and began taking pictures in 1912 at the tender age of 18. For much of his early development, he labored in obscurity. Henri Cartier-Bresson was better known, but today, both photographers are equally valued for their photojournalism and insights into the everyday life of the common man and woman.

Kertesz also dabbled in Dadaism and Surrealism in his work. He is known for his unusual angles, point of view, focus and composition. His most profound work involved taking pictures of soldiers in World War I in the midst of quiet moments. He was also a contract photographer for Conde Nast Publications where his career took off.

The photographs in On Reading were taken between 1915 and 1970. In his Preface, curator Robert Gurbo says that the book celebrates the engagement between reader and page, something he recognizes as rare in a digital age when the act of reading has been supplanted by surfing the Internet. Yet it is ironic, Gurbo notes, that it is the digital age that makes republishing Kertesz’s work in such a clear and beautiful edition possible.

The collection begins with the first photograph of the private act of reading ever taken by Kertesz, a group shot of three boys, two of them barefoot, poring over a book. The early-twentieth century setting is clear, and the boys are obviously poor. Kertesz took the photo in Esztergom, Hungary with a camera he scrimped and saved to purchase. The picture is a perfect illustration of the poverty of the boys and richness of the book they study.

The collection features people from a number of countries where Kertesz lived—Hungary, France, the United States—and focuses on different kinds of reading—books, letters, and newspapers.

Kertesz’s hallmarks are present. Many of the shots are taken from a distance, through objects like windows, fire escapes, and crowds. Even in the busiest scenes, the sacred privacy of the reader and the page is preserved.

Taken in Manila on June 15, 1968, one photograph features a bustling marketplace. The dirt sidewalk is a conglomeration of shoppers, mostly women, moving among the stalls and booths. In the lower right of the scene, nestled in some empty crates, a young girl intensely reads a book. Rubbish surrounds her, but she is oblivious, chin resting between knees, completely absorbed.

In another shot, a man leans into a book, examining the typeface with a magnifying glass. It is a tome plucked from a bin in front of a book shop on Fourth Avenue in New York. A cardboard sign marks the bin: “Special. 25¢. 5 for $1.00.” In the reader’s posture, one can see the intensity, the need to swallow the book and consume it whole, right there on the street.

All through the pages of photographs we see books as furnishings, inhabiting, and sometimes taking over, a room. In one shot, Kertesz plants his camera outside the building and shoots the window as seen from the street. Inside, we see the rows of books, but from the pages, not the spines; the bookcase is in front, and wholly blocking the window. On the facing page, books are stacked next to a desk with journals, papers, the detritus of the life of the mind. The clutter to a neat freak and a book lover would inspire the same reaction: a racing pulse. The neatnik would want to clean out the mess; the book lover would want to explore the piles.

The more affecting photographs are the ones where the reader is dwarfed by buildings. Many of Kertesz’s shots are taken of readers on the roofs and fire escapes of tenement apartments. We see them from a distance, completely absorbed in their reading, unaware of the camera or the artist, or anything else.

The disorder and chaos of a working library is a reader’s idea of heaven. Kertesz photographs these work areas, and in the piles of books and journals, we see our own rooms, the still space of the active imagination. The nonreader may not respond to such images, but in his photographs, we, the readers recognize ourselves and our books. The romance is still palpable, even in the digital age.


  1. You only mentioned Henri Cartier-Bresson to show-off that you "know" about photography but the mentioning had absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the essay. (But on the whole, it was good).

  2. On the contrary, the point I am making is that Cartier-Bresson received more attention for his work at the time, but Andre Kertesz's acclaim took a while to build. In fact, early on, some of his work was actually credited to other photographers.


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